Venom invented black metal and the most anticipated act for metalheads at Fun Fun Fun Fest; Norway’s Mayhem, chief architects of black metal’s Second Wave and one of Venom’s most notorious disciples, were a close second. They’ve never been able to escape their early 90s controversies, which include exploiting former vocalist Dead’s suicide for publicity (don’t Google Dawn of the Black Hearts at work), being linked to a rash of church burnings in Norway during that time, and former bassist Varg Vikernes murdering guitarist and founding member Euronymous (Vikernes is a controversial figure outside of the murder, but that’s a long story).
These all built the gruesome mystique that Norwegian black metal has and is largely trying to live down. Mayhem were also one of the last bands to play the original Emo’s before it moved east, giving the band a special place in the blackened hearts of local metalheads. They gave a solid performance, if one that didn’t cater to tourists expecting a mess. Gigantic inverted crosses were crowned with pigs’ heads, a staple of the band’s stage setup. Over the top? Absolutely, and it needed to be. There’s no way that would fly at Auditorium Shores. Guitarists Teloch and Charles Hedger both are adept communicators of the tremolo-laden riffing style pioneered by Euronymous and Blackthorn, whose tenure was short lived but his impact on black metal undeniable.
Some nods to the past were better than others. Bassist Necrobutcher, Mayhem’s only original member who actually wasn’t around during the height of their publicity, gave a indecipherable speech before “Chainsaw Gutsf–k,” which didn’t do much to shed his reputation he gained from his infamous drunken interview in the documentary Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey. “Chainsaw” came from Mayhem’s rawer, pre-hysteria days, when the band was more influenced by the burgeoning death metal movement, and Necrobutcher’s iconic bassline spoke louder than the words he couldn’t quite utter, thus gaining an appropriately rabid reaction.
It’s also strange that vocalist Attila Csihar would give the mic to anyone else, since he’s one of the most talented vocalists in his fields and is clearly the most competent and forward-thinking member of Mayhem by far. His screeches have a nocturnal distance that no one’s been able to match, and he’s able to give guttural lows a theatricality and range that’s less blunt and more haunting. Csihar was in a production of Jesus Christ Superstar a long time ago, which is unusual for a black metal musician, but gave him better sense for performance. “Freezing Moon” was the highlight of the night, in large part of his elongated croak that’s even creepier than it was on De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas. The only dead things on stage, to the dismay of heartless shock addicts, were the pigs.
As good as Mayhem were, Sweden’s Watain bested them by providing a more consistent performance and presentation. They only had two pigs’ heads on stage – can’t take up more than the headliners – but they were also flanked by crucified skeletons and the stench of animal blood they carry around, which has them every club owner’s favorite band. Thankfully, playing an outdoor venue alleviated that smell somewhat. Everyone was dressed in messy corpse paint and tattered rags, scowls on full display.
Contrast that to Mayhem, where only Csihar, in his occult baptismal gown and with skull attached to his mic that he’d make out with, looked the part. Watain are more melodic than Mayhem, in large part due to their devotion to Dissection, a Swedish group who wove gorgeous, almost Iron Maiden-esque melodies into their cold black metal. They’re much more focused on brute savagery, but moments of melodic gliss would still eek forth. Vocalist Erik Danielsson takes more from the standard rock performer playbook than Csihar’s oddball approach; this directness made for surprisingly effective bedfellows with Watain’s esoteric themes. Mayhem are burdened by history; Watain are still writing theirs, and it was obvious in the strength and passion of their performance.